Ellen’s Pick of the Week: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

“Does a person have to be either admirable or awful? Does life have to be so binary? Two things can be true at the same time, he told himself.”

The Glass Hotel begins dramatically in 2018 as Vincent is falling from a shipping vessel into the ocean. The novel  flips back and forth in time and location as Emily St. John Mandel weaves her complex narrative until finally the reader understands how and why Vincent came to be falling. 

A much younger Vincent and her mother had lived on the remote Canadian island of Caiette before the Hotel Caiette was built and she had returned to the island to work as a bartender as her life got uncomfortably complicated in about the year 2000. The physical center of this book, the Hotel Caiette, is a five-star luxury hotel with lots of wood and windows, and was intentionally built in the middle of nowhere for people who like the idea of being in the wilderness but not its uncomfortable realities. Her half-brother, a recovering addict, has also moved to the island and his presence has brought unwelcome memories of her miserable and lonely childhood. When offered a job by Jonathan Alkaitis, the very wealthy and handsome owner of the hotel, Vincent leaps at the chance to become his ‘friend with benefits’—and reaps lots of benefits! For the first time, she is living large in what she calls The Kingdom of Money and pays little attention to whatever it is that Alkaitis does to earn it. All he requires of her is that she accompany him as his ‘wife’ to various business functions. This life ends dramatically and it all comes crashing down on both of them in the crash of 2008.  Inspired by Bernie Madoff, Mandel was intrigued by the normal folks who were caught up in his ponzi schemes and how his employees might have justified their participation in his nefarious business.

As I read this dream-like book, I felt a sense of impending dread. Perhaps that’s from my Midwestern belief that there is no free lunch or it could be from knowing from the first page that Vincent was going to come to a tragic end. Despite knowing the end, I felt compelled to keep reading because I needed to see how Mandel ultimately put together all the pieces of this thought-provoking puzzle. Highly recommended.

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